A Killing in Ferguson: Why What Doesn’t Matter Matters So Much

Created: 20 August, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
3 min read

When Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on the afternoon of August 9, he killed an innocent man. This is an indisputable fact.

I am not speaking of theological innocence. I have no idea whether or not Brown had been cleansed of original sin, or blasphemed against the Holy Ghost, or shed the blood of his fellow human beings. Those things are handled at a level well above my pay grade.

Legally, however, “innocent” has a very specific definition. It is the word that we use to describe somebody who has not been found guilty of a crime under the due process of law. Under this definition, at least, Brown was an innocent man. He had never been convicted of anything.

Now, let me be very clear that it does not follow that Officer Wilson murdered Michael Brown. There are many instances in which police officers are legally entitled to use deadly force in the discharge of their duties. I do not know what happened on that street 11 days ago. Officer Wilson has the right to due process, too, and we all have a civic responsibility to let that process work.

But I am deeply concerned with the way that we have framed this issue in our civic discourse. As this case has become the center of protests and national attention, our public attention seems intently focused on a lot of things that just don’t matter. Chief among these, I think, is the question of whether or not Mr. Brown was a good person.

According to news reports, we can say for sure that he may, or may not, have stolen some cigars shortly before he was shot. Ha may, or may not, have belonged to a street gang, or sold drugs, or done any number of other things that would qualify him as a not nice person.

Much as we did with Treyvon Martin, we have become obsessed with analyzing, attacking, and defending the character of the young man who ended up dead — always careful to say that “it doesn’t mean he deserved to die,” but always tacitly implying that it sort of does. If people really thought it made no difference, they would never have any reason to bring it up at all.

If this were simply irrelevant, I would not feel compelled to say anything. Most of what passes for political discourse in our country is irrelevant.

This particular irrelevancy, however, tells us something very disturbing about ourselves. Specifically, it tells us that a nontrivial portion of our population thinks that there is a difference between 1) a young African-American man being shot six times by a police officer; and 2) a young African-American man being shot six times by a police officer after stealing cigars.

But here’s the thing: for these two things to be different in any way, we have to accept, at least on a subconscious level, the argument that punishing criminals is an acceptable role for the police. It is not. Punishing criminals is the role of the courts and of the due process of law that all Americans are entitled to.

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When we say that it is more acceptable IN ANY WAY for the police to kill somebody who has recently committed a crime, we blur one of the distinctions upon which our civil rights are based

We must all decide what kind of country we want to live in, of course, and then work to make our vision a reality. In my country, there is simply nothing that “extra-judicial execution for shoplifting” would ever sound better than.

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